The phrase “holiday magic” is everywhere this time of year, but if you want to see some real magic, get thee to Village Theatre’s tap-dance-terrific production of Mary Poppins, playing at the Village Theatre in Issaquah through Jan. 4 (an Everett run follows, Jan. 9–Feb. 4). Set against captivating backdrops of sooty London rooftops, polished Victorian drawing rooms and wintry city parks, the production not only lives up to the legacy of the classic movie, but exceeds it, proving — once again — that stage magic is more satisfying than movie magic.
A quick refresher: Produced by Cameron Mackintosh and written by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame, the musical is a distinct stage version of the 1964 Disney movie musical. Based on Travers' series of children’s books, it tells the tale of a family who lives at 17 Cherry Tree Lane in London. They are Jane and Michael Banks (Mae Corley, Jaryn Lisentia), two willful children who have sent six nannies packing; their father George (Andrew McGinn), a stern banker who believes that fun and games have no place in family life; and their mother Winifred (Christine Marie Brown), a warm-hearted but flighty matron who is overwhelmed by, well, almost everything. Into this dysfunctional mix lands (literally) a preternaturally calm, unflappable nanny named Mary Poppins (Cayman Ilika).
“When you walk with Mary Poppins you go to places you never dreamed of.” Mary’s sage chimney sweep friend Bert (Greg McCormick Allen) shares this observation with the children later in the story, but they sense that this nanny is different right away. She draws coat racks out of suitcases, turns lights on with a snap of her fingers, understands their toys’ feelings and eventually teaches them the world’s niftiest word, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" in one of the most fetching musical numbers in the play, featuring a shop that magically appears in a city park where statues also come to life.
Mary is anything but a pushover (I plan to steal a few of her phrases, such as, “I play games, but only if I choose them” and “I never explain anything”) yet champions empathy. As the play goes along, she gently nudges Jane and Michael to put themselves in their father’s stressed-out shoes and help him regain his childhood spark (which is somehow connected to that magically appearing shop, and a kite).
As one expects from Village Theatre and directors Steve Tomkins and Kathryn Van Meter, the performances are top-notch. As Mary, Ilika is unflappably perfect, with the right touches of warmth, firmness and humor, and incredible vocals. Two household staff, Mrs. Brill (Laura Kenny) and Robertson (Erik Gratton) hit it out of the park with a hilarious, cake-icing-gone-wrong scene in the kitchen (cue uproarious laughter from kids in the audience). As Jane and Michael, Mae Corley and Jaryn Lisentia more than hold their own; Andrew McGinn captures George's moving journey well; and even Christine Marie Brown's Winifred (never my favorite character) grew on me as she gained chutzpah in the course of the play.
My absolute favorite was Greg McCormick Allen as Bert, whose highly developed sense of fun — the counterpoint to Mr. Banks — is shown off throughout the production, most satisfyingly in the extraordinary tap-dance number “Step in Time.” (Be prepared for requests for tap-dance lessons.)
The stage magic is solid, and more appreciated by this viewer because you can almost see the elbow grease behind it. Cast members whoosh up chimneys, (in Bert's case) tap-dance on the ceiling, and, of course, fly. (Yes, you can see ropes, but that just made my son feel smart for noticing.) Thunder and lightning even make an appearance during one of the best scenes in the play, a showdown between Mary and Mr. Banks’ former nanny Miss Andrews, aka the Holy Terror.
The nanny showdown is one of the points of departure between the movie version and this adaptation. Overall, there is more grit and darkness in the stage version — the melancholy in songs like “Feed the Birds” and “Chim-chim Cheree” is more pronounced, the sets are more urban and less sparkly Disney, George's journey is more explained. These changes, to my mind, deepen the experience. As a child, I almost exclusively focused on the magic in Mary Poppins. As an adult, I appreciated the different layers of the story, and its realness: A family trying to find its way back to each other.
Should you take your kid?
Mary Poppins is clean and as a whistle and wholly engaging, which makes it an ideal first longer performance for kids. (My 5-year-old son, who has never attended a show more than an hour long, was completely engaged throughout.) You can read through the performance preview guide if you want to make extra sure. Tip: get an aisle seat if you have littles, as they can hang out or dance in the aisle, as one cute 3-year-old did during the most of the performance we saw.
If you go ...
When: Mary Poppins plays Tuesday-Sunday in Issaquah through Jan. 4, and in Everett from Jan. 9 through Feb. 8.
Where: Francis Gaudette Theatre, Village Theatre, Issaquah
Tickets: $55 and up. Buy online.
Mary Poppins trivia: For fascinating reading on the differences between the stage version and the Disney film version, read this article.
Snacks and eats: There is one 15-minute intermission and ample snacks available in the lobby before the performance and at intermission. The theater is in the heart of Issaquah, where dining options abound, from fancy (Fins) to affordable and crowd-pleasing (Shanghai Garden) to pub fare (Sunset Alenouse). Find more Issaquah ideas here.